Group Study Exchange opens eyes to French agriculture
By Janet Kubat Willette
Date Modified: 09/10/2012 3:00 PM
FAIRMONT, Minn. — Fairmont's new agricultural education teacher hopes to share what she learned on a month-long journey to France with her students.
Amber Seibert, a Sebeka native, was one of four professionals from Minnesota chosen to represent Minnesota Rotary Clubs District 5950 on a June visit to France.
The Group Study Exchange was focused on agriculture, per the request of their Rotary counterparts in District 1720 in France, said Barb Devlin, who coordinates the Group Study Exchange for Rotary District 5950. Normally, tours have professionals with a mix of vocations. The agriculture-focused trip was the first to have a vocation focus since 1998, Devlin said.
Seibert, who still knows very little French, crammed in what language learning she could from when she was selected in November until she left June 1.
The first few days of the trip were stressful and nerve-wracking, she said, because she couldn't understand anything. By the end of the month, she could understand basic questions in French and was able to ask where the bathroom was.
She communicated with host families, many of whom didn't speak English, using gestures. Gestures, she said, are pretty universal. An expressive person by nature, she'd break the ice by showing her hosts pictures on her ipad, pictures of her family, her home farm, her classroom and where she taught at Sauk Rapids-Rice High School. She'd talk about "ma famille," which her hosts always asked about.
Seibert purchased the ipad just weeks before she left. She downloaded a translation app and a French to English dictionary. Both helped a ton, she said. She used it to blog about her experiences so people back home could keep up with their travels.
She took detailed notes because she wanted to remember as much as possible so she could share the experience with her students.
The group toured the Loire Valley in central France. It is one of the most agriculturally productive areas in France, Seibert said. The valley is known for its goat cheese.
They saw many fields of wheat and other small grains, primarily rye and triticale. They saw goats, Charolais and Limousin cow-calf grazing operations and two dairy farms.
All the tour guides spoke French, but sometimes a Rotary member who was on the tour translated. Other times, team leader Bryan Rossi or fellow team member Jennifer Pierquet, would translate.
The meals were much different, with each one having multiple courses. A lot of cheese was sewrved. They were offered cheese and wine at most every meal.
She grew up on a dairy farm, where milk was the drink of choice at meal time.
Not so in France.
"I don't ever remember having a glass of milk," she said.
Seibert, who is not a Rotary member, pursued the trip to France for three reasons:
• "I believe very strongly that it's important for me to learn as much as I can about agriculture and the world," she said. This gives her a broader knowledge base to use in the classroom working with students.
• It was an all-expenses paid trip to France to learn about agriculture. Those trips are few and far between, she said.
• She loves to travel and loves learning new things. She wants to see as much of the world as she can.
Seibert will give a presentation to the Sartell Rotary Club because they sponsored her visit. It's likely she will give additional presentations.
The group also took time to sightsee, visit castles and churches. She learned about France's economy and their school system.
"I enjoyed the fact that we really got to talk to people," Seibert said.
Fellow traveler Megan Roberts of Madelia agreed that the access they received wouldn't have been possible if she'd gone on her own.
"I think that I learned and saw things that I never could as a typical traveler," Roberts said.
A master's student at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Roberts was also new to French. She was eager to go on the trip to immerse herself in agriculture in another country.
"I have a really big interest in the global nature of agriculture," she said.
Roberts discovered that although agriculture is very different in countries across the world, it is also similar. She met hardworking French farmers who spoke a different language, but were as passionate about agriculture as their U.S. counterparts.
"We are all farmers where ever we are across the world," said Roberts, who farms with her husband, Dan, and his family when not away at school.
The focus on food traceability in France was intriguing to her. Food safety is very important in both countries, but the French are focused on tracking crops to their exact field of origin. They have careful traceability with barcodes and batch numbers.
Also interesting to her was seeing how government regulations and policies impact agriculture in France.
"We definitely talked a lot about European Union policies," she said.
Pierquet, the FoodSHIELD coordinator for the National Center for Food Protection and Defense, said the trip made her a more well-rounded agricultural professional.
A dairy farmer's daughter from Wisconsin, Pierquet said she learned a great deal about French agriculture.
"The most interesting discovery would be the European Union's oversight on agricultural production, specifically the cap placed on farmers to only produce so much of a product," she said.
The other team member was Kevin Huselid, a research and development engineer at General Mills.